Thanks to Bedford/St. Martin’s

These entries, written by Traci Gardner, are copied from TechNotes, a free newsletter for writing teachers from Bedford/St. Martin’s. For information about TechNotes, go to

Web Litterbugs

On Sunday November 3, an article appeared lamenting the many dead Web pages, dated blogs, and forgotten sites that are cyber-dead and frozen in time, and are therefore, in the article’s terms, littering the Web.

The article from Sunday is not the first of its kind; after all, pages have been stagnating or disappearing from the web since the beginning. But is this litter, or history? What can we learn from the cyber-dead about writing, about Websites, or about the topics and interests these lost sites addressed? This collection of links to other articles on Website stagnation and dead ends, and the discussion questions below explore these and other questions.
News and Archives
“Internet Littered With Dead Web Sites,” AP, November 3, 2003
Dearly Departed: The Virtual Dead Live at the Museum of E-Failure,” ABC News, July 9
Night of the Living-Dead Sites,” Wired, January 1997
Atlantic Unbound: Web Citations: Ghost Sites,”The Atlantic Online, June 4, 199 8
404s Are Sexy,” Wired, February 2000

Wayback Machine
Ghost Sites: Where Dead Web Sites Live On
The DEAD MEDIA Project: A Modest Proposal and a Public Appeal
Web is Dead, a three-act play
The HTTP Error 404 Antidote, Webmonkey
404 Research Lab (Note, some of this content will be inappropriate)

Related Discussion and Writing Topics
  • What exactly makes a web dead? Some folks will say that it has to do with how often a site is updated; others will point to whether the site is still available. Some sites do not need to change or be updated (for instance, a site with archival purposes). Write your own criteria for a “dead web” or outline how you would decide when to retire a website (in other words, when should a site be taken down?)

  • Compare a dead site to a “live” site focused on a similar product, issue, or service. Ideally, look for a “live” site that is well-established, preferably one which was available at the same time as the site which has lapsed or disappeared. How do you explain the fact that one site died while the other is still available? What advice can you provide on establishing a long-lasting site based on the sites that you’ve compared?

  • Take your comparison of a dead site and a similar “live” site to the next level by considering how the qualities these two sites demonstrate relate to the persistence and success of other products: books that remain in print over many years; product lines that have been sold for decades; or entertainers who have maintained long careers. How do the issues for longevity online compare to the issues for other products?

  • Complete a rhetorical analysis of a dead website (one that is archived in the Wayback Machine or for which there is a screen shot on Ghost Sites). Analyze the writing situation (audience, purpose, and voice), and explore how the material on the page fits the needs of the audience and its purpose. Take the position of a consultant who is working with the author of the site. What would you suggest could be done to revive the site? What would your changes accomplish, and how would they be more successful? (Alternately, use the information that you’ve gathered to hypothesize why the site died.)

  • What if a site you used died tomorrow? How would you remember it? Many of the screen shots available on Ghost Sites are accompanied by “annotations (Web Elegies) . . . to place each site in its historical context.” Write an elegy for your current favorite site, providing historical context and explaining what you’d like the site to be remembered for.

  • One of the benefits of a retired site is that it captures a moment in time. The Wayback Machine includes snapshots of several specific online moments (e.g., September 11th, and the 2000 Elections). Choose a time that is historically or culturally significant, and use the Wayback Machine to explore several sites from that time period. Note that you’ll have the most success if you choose a longer period, such as Spring 2000 rather than a specific day. Based on the pages that you examine, what can you conclude about the time period that you’ve examined? How do the pages capture the period? Examples might be to look at how a group of news pages captured a particular event, or how several commercial sites dress up for the holiday gift-giving season.

  • What happens when a page dies? You usually end up on a 404 page. Everyone sees these pages, but have you thought about them and how they work? Using the resources above, spend some time investigating the design and use of 404 pages. What makes one 404 page more successful than another? As you explore, you’ll find links to example 404 pages that no longer exist: What does it mean when a 404 page is 404? Use the information that you’ve gathered to design a 404 page for an existing site that helps (rather than annoys) people who reach it. Alternately, complete a rhetorical analysis of 404 pages for several sites and explore how they work and how well they fulfill their purpose for the site’s primary audience.